Do you suffer from stage fright? I am told that three out of every four people suffer from speech anxiety and that some of those would rather die than stand up and give a talk. I'm not one of them. I do a lot of speaking engagements and that means I also get to hear a lot of speakers, many of whom I learn a lot from. But no speech ever taught me as much as the most disastrous case of stage fright I've ever witnessed.

A Public Speaking Debacle

The talk was in front of an audience of about 500 people and the speaker really knew her stuff. She'd given loads of talks before and there was no reason to believe that this wouldn't go well.

I don't really know what happened but clearly, about five minutes in, everything started to fall apart. You could see that she was struggling to remember the structure of her argument. In long, painful pauses, the audience watched as she mentally rehearsed what she'd already said and what she had yet to say. At times, she simply stopped completely lost, confused, and appalled by an experience she didn't understand. At no point did she give up, which meant that a 20-minute talk stretched out for what seemed an interminable period of time until, at last, she reached the end.

A Surprising, Promising Result

The audience cheered. Not because it had been a great talk but because she had shown great courage. And that was the powerful lesson I learned: The audience is on your side. If you struggle, stumble or make a mistake but can keep going, even acknowledging that you're finding it hard, the audience will love you for it. The people in the your audience share your pain; they know how hard speaking is, and they respect you for daring to do what many would never attempt.

A great speech isn't, finally, about the speaker but about the audience. People want you to succeed. You don't have to be perfect. Just human.